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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

THE CAPTAIN WAS A MARVEL

When you hear or think of the name “Captain Marvel,” odds are you picture a man in a red, gold, and white costume flying around yelling “SHAZAM!” That character, for complex reasons we are not even going to begin to address right now, has become the property of DC Comics, where he was once entangled in a legal dispute over his supposed resemblance to Superman.

However, there was another Captain Marvel, this one belonging to Marvel Comics, which, in another set of circumstances we’re not going to talk about right now, won the right to use the name as the title character of a comic book. (When DC does a comic book about the first Captain Marvel, they have to title it SHAZAM.) That character was killed off in a much-praised 1982 graphic novel by writer-artist Jim Starlin, who is known for his cosmic and metaphysical storylines involving death, frequently as an actual character. Starlin’s particular set of fixations could be, and may one day be, the subject of a Quantum Blog post of their own. What concerns us here is that the first Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics was immediately followed by a second one--and writer Roger Stern (an old acquaintance of mine), whom Marvel commissioned to create this character, decided that SHE would be black!

The second Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics, created by Roger Stern with John Romita Jr., made a high-profile debut in the 1982 Amazing Spider-Man Annual. Right off the bat, Marvel was treating this character as someone that they wanted to be seen, and having her appear for the first time in a Spider-Man story was the perfect way to get fans’ attention onto her. In “Who’s That Lady? Call Her Captain Marvel!” we are introduced to New Orleans Coast Guard Lieutenant Monica Rambeau, a tall, beautiful African-American woman, who has come to Manhattan with an unusual and dangerous problem. She possesses the literal power to become energy--any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum--but she can’t control it and is desperate to find help before her power builds to a dangerous overload that could cause massive destruction and take countless lives. She is seeking the help of the Fantastic Four (super-heroes in trouble tend to run to the Fantastic Four for help), but she first encounters Spider-Man instead. Spidey chases her to the Avengers Mansion, where she accidentally shuts down Iron Man's armor before he and the Webhead finally help her to discharge herself safely into the sky. Impressed with Captain Marvel’s power, the Wasp, who is leading the Avengers at the time, recruits her on the spot. So it is that in just her first few hours in the Big Apple, Captain Marvel has found her way into the elite of the world’s super-heroes!

How did a Coast Guard Lieutenant come by this power and that name? It started with Monica being consistently passed over for promotion to Captain. During one of her bouts of frustration over the glass ceiling, Monica got a visit from an old family friend, Professor Andre LeClare. The Professor’s work on drawing energy from other dimensions had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous engineer named Felipe Picaro, who meant to develop it for the use of a South American dictator. LeClare, who affectionately called Monica “Mon Capitaine” (the very thing that her Coast Guard superiors were preventing her being), needed Monica’s help to get onto the oil rig where LeClare was working and shut down the experiment. Our heroine agreed and charmed her way onto the rig and into Picaro’s company.

Naturally, the Professor and the Lieutenant were found out, and in the ensuing struggle, Monica tried to disable the dimension-tapping device with her bare hands--a brave act that physically put her in the interface of the machine and caused it to overload. The result was that Monica was endowed with mass/energy exchange powers that she at once used to defeat Picaro and his henchmen; this after her first manifestation of power transmitted her back to New Orleans, where she cobbled together a costume out of Mardi Gras items she found in a warehouse. When the Navy came to the oil rig to do a mop-up operation, one of Picaro’s men, who had overheard LeClare’s nickname for Monica, was babbling in Spanish, “Capitan est maravila,” or “The Captain is a marvel!” This got into the press, and the name for the mysterious new super-heroine stuck: She was officially the all-new Captain Marvel!

I accepted and loved Captain Marvel immediately. I thought she was magnificent. I loved it that she, an African-American woman, was given one of the most venerable names in super-hero comics. I loved it that practically no sooner had she gotten off the bus at Port Authority, she was immediately put front and center in the Marvel Comics cast as a member of the Avengers, a position second in prestige only to the Fantastic Four themselves. Furthermore, Captain Marvel, who could actually become electromagnetic energy of any type, was the single most powerful mortal, human member the Avengers ever had. (I felt the need to use the qualifiers “mortal” and “human” because one of CM’s Avengers colleagues--and a founder of the team--is the mighty Thor, a hero surpassed in power only by the Silver Surfer.) I was proud of Captain Marvel. Except for the founding quintet of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Henry Pym in his various guises including Ant-Man, and the Wasp, Captain Marvel at once became my favorite Avenger. And the storytelling of Roger Stern assured that she would earn the distinction.

Captain Marvel proved capable of handling herself in whatever awesome situation the life of a super-hero could throw at her. Under the tutelage of the Black Knight, she learned what she could do with her energy powers. She stood up to some of the most fearsome threats in the Marvel Universe. She faced the Beyonder, the Skrulls, and Magneto. One of my favorite things that happened with her was when the Masters of Evil planned their devastating attack on the Avengers and their invasion of the mansion. Baron Zemo II, in laying his plans against Earth’s mightiest, realized that one Avenger by herself was a greater threat to him than all the others put together. He actually pondered the danger that Monica Rambeau posed him: “I know we Masters can handle the other Avengers--but what are we going to do about Captain Marvel?” This was a first in Avengers history. Villains had always respected Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the other Avengers--but Captain Marvel was the first Avenger who actually scared the bad guys! The Masters of Evil thought they could take CM off the board by trapping her in the Darkforce Dimension, but when she escaped by using the Darkforce-channeling hero the Shroud as a conduit back to Earth, she was not happy, and Moonstone, the villainess who came up with the idea, flew off thinking, Please don’t let her get me! She was so afraid of Captain Marvel’s wrath--and rightly so, because CM could have destroyed her--that she flew into a cliff and broke her neck!

Her meritorious conduct as a new Avenger earned Captain Marvel the most exalted spot of all: the chance to lead the most powerful group of organized super-heroes in Marvel Comics, a position that Captain America himself encouraged her to take! The black lady who had been passed over for promotion to Captain in the Coast Guard was now the leader of the Avengers! This was just brilliant. Captain Marvel had climbed--or soared--to the top of the super-hero pyramid and handled it as if she were born to do it. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Roger had it in mind for her all along.) I was sure there were no limits to what could be done with Captain Marvel.

As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The fictional Coast Guard of Marvel Earth was not the only place with a glass ceiling. Little did I know it, but soon Captain Marvel would strike a barrier even more impenetrable than the Null-Field of Annihilus (Fantastic Four #256 and The Avengers #233). Next time in The Quantum Blog, we’re going to look back at one of the most shameful and disgraceful episodes in the history of Marvel Comics: the near-destruction, ruin, and marginalizing of Captain Marvel. It’s not a pretty story.

9 comments:

  1. Joe:
    I've always loved the lady Captain Marvel, especially because of her black and silver costume. I like to read your blog, it is one of the most thoughtful comics blogs I know. If only the typeface were bigger and easier to read!
    I'm at http://pyracanthasketch.blogspot.com
    Pyracantha
    (Hannah M.G.Shapero)

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  2. Wonderful piece, I'd forgotten what Captain Marvel 2's actual origin was. I do hate it when someone gets cheesily stuck with a name because of something someone says, but, ah, Monica, lover her to bits.

    I wonder why the first appearance cover was so bad, surely they could have made her mysterious without using such a weirdo shape.

    Off to Part Two!

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  3. Oh, I agree with Hannah about the font size!

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  4. Thanks for the insightful summary of Mopnica's early history. Only trouble is, I have to write an article aboutall the female Captain MArvels, and yours aboiut Monica was so well written, I'll have to work at not plagarizing it! ;)

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  5. Excellent aritcle on Monica Rambeau's early career! In many ways I fell that she was a more realistic and successful "feminist" that Carol Danvers.

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  6. Well, Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel was created with the best of intentions, but I agree that the character needed some work in the beginning! :-))

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  7. My introduction to Monica was as a kid, reading Secret Wars. I liked how she was portrayed there, and I liked her even before my love for all the other Marvels (Mar-Vell, Carol, etc.) was born.

    I just finished re-reading Secret Wars II last night. She shines in those books, too. Making Namor behave is no small feat. I wish I can see more of her (my most recent book with her was Divas, which was good, but too short).

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